A certain school of thought purports that everyone has a life purpose, a mission, something that one must learn or do in this lifetime which illuminates a fundamental truth about his or her existence. Its a nice idea, isn’t it? It gives some order to the chaos, and clarity during the murky hours of life. You could probably fill the Library of Congress with books, audiotapes, magazine articles with titles like “Identify Your True Calling” or “Finding Your Life Purpose (and then following through!).” This attractive concept garners some consumer spending.
I don’t know if we all have a life purpose. It can be hard to identify a unifying theme that ties together a long, complex and dynamic life.
My mom had a purpose, however, and hers was crystal clear: to be of service.
I naturally didn’t know her as a child, but suspect in many ways she took care of her mother from the very beginning. She dedicated her career to raising money for a range of causes she believed in, from providing family planning services in the 1970’s and 1980’s to community wellness services to seniors during the 2000’s. She was almost always smiling, a big, infectious smile that made others feel good. Blessed with tons of energy, she pumped it into her family, her friends, her colleagues. Kind, reliable and hardworking, she unfailingly did whatever needed to be done for everyone else. She listened, she gave, she shared. She had little inclination towards religion, but was more Christ-like than most anyone I’ve ever met.
Her own needs often fell away in the face of serving others, and this continued after she was diagnosed with cancer. Until the end. She pushed Grandma’s wheelchair until she couldn’t walk. When she was actively dying, she tried to eat soup so Grandma wouldn’t worry about her.
During her illness, qualities that I often admired also frustrated me, pissed me off. I wanted my mother, the constant caregiver, the ridiculously generous, to finally take care of herself a bit. I had nightmares that all this outwardly focused kindness was depleting her, and if she could harbor some for herself perhaps she could beat that lymphoma. She naturally attracted a lot of needy folks, and I would glare at the other patients in the clinic waiting rooms who would hone in and start blabbing to her about their problems: leave her the fuck alone. And then I’d shoot daggers at Mom: stop encouraging them!
She was aware of her life purpose. We talked about it once on a walk outside of MD Anderson Hospital. I think I was lecturing her to go to a yoga class, get away from caregiving Grandma for a bit so she could focus on healing. We sat down next to a fountain, surrounded by a bed of flowers.
“You know, this sounds kind of funny, but I’m here to take care of others. You can best support me by letting me do that, because its what makes me feel good.”
I’ve often struggled with loving people as they are, and not as I want them to be. During Mom’s illness I was challenged again. I wanted her to be someone more selfish, more normal. But that wasn’t her. She needed to stick with her mission, her purpose. It was the only way of being that worked for her.
We aren’t all meant to be servants during this lifetime– I know I’m not. But we can be inspired to follow our own path with the unwavering dedication that my mother followed hers.